Dinner, Everyone, at the San Francisco – Marin Food Bank

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The San Francisco–Marin Food Bank’s warehouse, located at 900 Pennsylvania Avenue, is the hub for an effort that depends on a multitude of nonprofit organizations, schools, businesses, and volunteers to feed more than 147,000 people every week. The Potrero Hill location is one of the organization’s two warehouses; the other is in Novato.

“During the holidays, we see peak numbers,” said Goldie Pyka, the Food Bank’s head of marketing and community relations. “During the three months of October, November, and December, we’ll provide 10 million meals. During the holidays, we like to provide traditional holiday items: sweet potatoes, pears, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, turkey or a whole chicken, gravy, cranberry sauce, bread rolls, and dessert, so people can feel a part of the holiday.”

According to Pyka, most Food Bank clients have homes, with between 14 to 17 percent of those served homeless. The nonprofit undertakes several tasks: receiving fresh produce from growers and packers; repacking donated and purchased items into boxes for pantries managed by neighborhood nonprofits; trucking food to the organizations; and managing a store in the warehouse where nonprofits can purchase additional foods for specialty events or their own pantries for pennies on the dollar.

Pyka said 60 percent of the food distributed is fresh produce “not frozen, not canned, straight from the farm. We have a joke that we don’t have to look up what’s seasonal. We can just look at our warehouse floor.” Most of the produce isn’t refrigerated. Drivers arrive at 3 a.m. to deliver food throughout the City.

“We operate the Farm to Family program, which works with growers and packers throughout California to get fresh produce to people in need,” said Sue Sigler, executive director of Oakland-based California Association of Food Banks (CAFB). CAFB arranges the logistics for produce to get from growers and packers in the Imperial Valley, coastal region – Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo – and Central Valley to the Food Bank.  “We’ll source over 150 million pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables this year to the San Francisco–Marin Food Bank and three other food banks,” she said.  “The drought hasn’t affected the overall volume of produce coming to the Food Bank.”

According to Leslie Bacho, the Food Bank’s chief operating officer, the organization conducts nutritional education to teach those receiving fresh produce how to prepare different items.  “We have a binder called “Apples to Zucchini” that shows you how to prep all of the produce items we distribute to our pantries,” said Bacho.

Bacho said the Food Bank packs similar items for each of the 243 food pantries that partner organizations maintain throughout the City, though it attempts to cater to each neighborhood’s tastes and dietary restrictions.  “We provide foods that are cross-culturally appropriate, many chicken and egg items. Some sites don’t like as much cereal, so we don’t give them as much of that. Some sites are accustomed to cooking with beans or tofu, so we try to provide that. Often we have recipes or materials translated into as many as seven languages, including Korean, Cantonese, Tagalog, Spanish, and Russian,” said Bacho.  The Food Bank doesn’t accept alcohol, homemade foods, soda, items in glass, and perishable items.

Lili Bentley, business operations manager of Munchery, a food preparer and delivery service based at 375 Alabama Street, said her company has enjoyed working with the Food Bank over the past two years. “We have a one to one program where for every order purchased, we donate a meal through the San Francisco–Marin Food Bank to someone in need,” said Bentley. Every six weeks, Munchery employees volunteer for a shift packing food at the Hill warehouse. “We picked the Food Bank because they have such a great presence in the San Francisco Bay Area and they are making such a positive impact,” she said.  “It was really important that we knew the money was going to people in need.”

According to Pyka, volunteers are key to the Food Bank’s operations.  “We have over 30,000 volunteers, the equivalent of 71 full-time employees, assist us every year. We could not do this job without them. We do this every day of the week, every day of the year,” said Pyka.

Pyka said volunteers engage in friendly competitions when filling bags of dry goods, such as grains and pasta.   “The food goes out in 15 pound boxes and our scales are really sensitive. Whatever team has exactly 15 pounds wins for the day. It’s not quiet. The volunteers play ‘80s and ‘70s music. People are talking and everyone’s in hairnets and gloves. It’s a lot of fun,” said Pyka. 

Bacho said Sunday is a special volunteer day for families, when children four years old and up can accompany parents.

San Francisco Friends School, an independent kindergarten through eighth grade Quaker school located in the Mission, is a Food Bank partner. “We’ve been working with the Food Bank since 2010,” Guybe Slangen, the school’s director of community engagement, said. “Social service and community stewardship are a big part of what we do. The seventh grade works with the Food Bank, visiting to do sorting and get the food ready for distribution to satellite centers throughout the City, four to five times a year.” Slangen said the school’s seventh graders look for ways to raise awareness about food justice and food insecurity as part of its curriculum.

“Working with the Food Bank reminded me how easy it is to make a difference,” Zoe G., an eighth grader at San Francisco Friends School, said. “After just two hours of work, 18 people can package several hundred pounds of rice, enough to feed hundreds of families. One of my favorite things to package at the Food Bank was rice. My class would make it a competition to see which group could package the most rice. By the end of the year, our groups were like well-oiled machines; scoop, weigh, seal, repeat. The work is easy, and we shared many laughs as we did it. Going to the Food Bank was like a two-hour lunch break in which you get to help hundreds of people reach their next meal. At the end of the day, working at the Food Bank was some of the most rewarding, fun, and relaxed community service work I have done.”

According to Monika Jo, a volunteer with the Excelsior Community Food Pantry (ECFP), which runs a community pantry hosted by the Jewish Home of San Francisco, the Food Bank serves a critical need in the Excelsior.  “Rain or shine, every Saturday, we do food distribution in a farmer’s market-style pantry in the parking lot of the Jewish Home. We serve 300 to 350 households total, or 75 to 85 families every 15 minutes between 11 and 12 o’clock,” said Jo.

Jo said many people rely on the resources provided through the Food Bank, especially the elderly and families with young children.  “There’s a crew of volunteers who are also registered clients of the Food Bank. It’s a place for them to connect with others and get food for the week,” said Jo

Jo said the ECFP’s casual “show up and volunteer” policy has led to spontaneous work by individuals from around the Bay Area, as far away as Berkeley and the Peninsula. This has fostered connections between the clients and residents throughout the region. “There’s fun interactions and interactions across ethnic boundaries. We always enjoy seeing new faces,” said Jo.

Sharon Bechtel, volunteer coordinator with the Homeless Prenatal Program (HPP), at 2500 18th Street, which serves poor and homeless families, said the Food Bank’s boxes especially help families that live in areas where there’s not a lot of fresh produce available.  “We have families that have zero food. Every family that comes in is poor. We’re very lucky that they are so close. It takes me just a few minutes to go over there,” said Bechtel.

Bechtel said the Food Bank delivers a pallet of fresh food every Friday, including produce and whole chickens. Bechtel also shops at the Food Bank’s in-house store for foods for HPP’s emergency pantry. “We serve 4,000 people a year. Our clients are individuals who have children under 18 or are pregnant. Our goal is to work with the families and try to break the cycle of poverty,” said Bechtel.

Kevin Wilson, director of the YMCA of San Francisco’s Urban Services Potrero Hill Family Support Center, said the Food Bank has done a good job of assisting other nonprofits to benefit City residents. “There’s a lot of liability that’s hung over our heads to provide food for our residents. The Food Bank has allowed us to supply a weekly food pantry that serves 120 to 150 residents every Tuesday and purchase healthy foods to facilitate workshops and community events. It’s a huge benefit to our programming,” said Wilson.

Wilson said Hill residents face challenges with transportation to get groceries and sometimes lack money to buy food.  “It’s been very beneficial. A lot of families depend on it. Usually we hear good feedback about the items and the way we are providing it,” said Wilson.

Pyka said the Food Bank is always open to volunteers, and welcomes monetary donations.  “We raise nearly half of our total operating budget in the last two months of the year. What we do not get in donations, we buy in bulk for pennies on the pound. The help is appreciated,” said Pyka.  “Every year we put out a report called our Missing Meals Report. We’re doing better than we were at the peak of the recession between 2008 and 2010. Our numbers are still higher than before the recession. People in San Francisco and Marin miss about one in every six meals, or the equivalent of 50 million meals every year. Food is almost always the first item on the budget to cut.”

“We live in such an expensive City,” Bacho added. “It’s important that we have a critical network of support.”